The first major concept fashion curators come across while studying, is that of the relationships that exist between garments and bodies, thus wearers. It is a reflection that follows all professionals analyzing fashion history and how they could display it, enhancing or, on the contrary, denying its previous existence, that of a worn piece of clothing. I had written in my previous post how different the two exhibitions Parisian fashion museums were presenting these days were, although they were both initiated by a similar aim, that to propose a broad observation of fashion history through a scrutinized research into the museum’s patrimony. Yet, where the Arts Décoratifs had chosen to present a very ‘basic’ chronological retrospective, the Palais Galleria has pushed its reflection further.
Rather than a mere history of fashion, Olivier Saillard, the museum’s director has decided to enhance the intrinsic human connections garments bear. An anatomy of a collection, the diversity of the collection built by the museum throughout the years… Thus by visiting the exhibition, viewers are offered various narratives: a comprehension of the evolution of fashion, a reflection on the impact of the wearer, the absence of the body and the understanding of how fashion museum archives are established. That seems a lot and yet, it all reveals itself clearly and with much pedagogy.
With a little more than a hundred pieces, Anatomy of a Collection invites us within an intimate, almost enigmatic atmosphere that balances between vitality and stillness, life and death. An interesting contrast so evident of fashion archives when garments restitute the silhouettes that inhabited them, the existences they led but also enable to pursue lives that have for some, physically ceased a long time ago. On another hand, they also highlight the notion of absence while the human body has disappeared from the display and the garments appear like ghostly fragments. The exhibition gracefully evokes this destitution when it comes to tragic deaths. Some pieces that belonged to such personalities as Marie-Antoinette or Louis XVII are presented lying flat within window cases and clearly diffuse a spectral identity, a disturbing feel while the garment is sufficient in expressing such a powerful concept as death and tragedy. Emotions are often triggered during the visit when one discovers the clothing of Docteur Gachet’s wife, including her wedding dress and how romantically he kept and then donated her wardrobe after her death at a young age or that ensemble Armand Carrel was wearing during the duel that killed him. The wearers that the display honors are diverse: from historical figures such as the Empress Eugénie or Napoléon, glamour celebrities should it be Audrey Hepburn, Mistinguett or Catherine Deneuve, elegant haute couture clients not always known by the public but also a few anonymous individuals incarnated by their popular outfits. I much approved this rare choice for a fashion museum, that of exhibiting popular garments, everyday workwear from the 18th century and early 20th century that bear a strong charm as they are so rarely visible but also because they seem the to be the pieces to which we can relate to so much more.
Interestingly, the exhibition ends on a series of catwalk prototypes given to the museum by diverse fashion houses since the 1970s. These garments deliver a different discourse that of the disembodied wearer, anonymity and the power of the designer’s fantasies. When the previous pieces of the display tended to highlight how crucial the wearer is in the making of the fashion discourse, these elements annihilate humanity, intensifying how impactful a garment can be with its sole aspect, whoever the wearer should be.
Despite a scenography that disappointed me a little, I appreciated how the curators celebrated the importance of the texts punctuating the exhibition, from the panels to the labels, all were exquisitely and precisely written with insightful information that not only told the stories of the wearers but also delivered a detailed description of the garments – thus perfect balancing between science and pedagogy.
Because we are so used to seeing fashion exhibitions focused on designers, Anatomy of a Collection introduces a refreshing narrative that highlights poetic and beautiful relics inhabited with souvenirs and emotions. More than ever, this display manifests how fashion archives defy time by remaining after the death of their owners yet it also reminds us how much these patrimonial pieces bring life and death together by delivering so many evidences of humanity with trivial perspiration traces or stains but also by enhancing the absence of the living body.